It’s been some hours since I got to know of Sumanta Dey’s death. Sumanta was not family. He wasn’t a friend either. And I have met him once for about five hours. Twice, actually, if we add a cab ride from the airport to the hotel earlier that day.
The first time we exchanged email was on August 10, 2017. Not that long ago, when you think of it.
Yet, the pain continues to slice me; Sumanta was a co-conspirator of the creative kind that only a few collaborators get comfortable being. This is the closest a Covid death has come round to my life. And mourn it I will, as my own.
Sumanta Dey, an alumnus of the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta, was one of the finest young artists this country could boast of. I should know. I create picture books for children, and end up interacting with tens and dozens of superb illustrators all the time – freshers, seasoned, in-betweens and more. There was something distinctly genius-like in his artwork that stood out for me the day his email sharing his portfolio popped into my inbox.
Usually, I let the portfolios waft in and out of my mindspace for a few days, a sort of mental vetting, as it were, before I connect with the artist whose work shows promise. With Sumanta’s, mine was an immediate lunge at the reply button; a tad comical, bordering on desperation, perhaps. What if, between the sending of his email and the receiving of my late reply, he changed his mind about working with me?
I made some quick mental notes from his resumé. He was young, very young, barely out of art college; he was insanely talented; he’d had his work showcased at an exhaustive bevy of exhibitions, internationally, too; he was already sitting on an impressive bunch of some of the most coveted art awards both within India and internationally; and he was unpublished.
This last one was of particular interest to me. Publishers pride themselves on stellar finds. My added satisfaction comes from grooming those such finds to surpass their best yet, and to surprise themselves with a book that only the best creative versions of themselves could come up with.
But one look at Sumanta’s artwork, and I knew he would need no grooming. He had already aced nuanced, arresting graphic storytelling. The samples he shared had Calcutta painted like a photograph, like moving poetry, like a dream. The morning dew on his Maidan grass felt fresh as real; the old gramophones crackled with vintage vinyls on his Free School street. The ferries on his Hooghly bobbed with joy.
I could smell the city. The road’s cacophony was hard to miss. I could hear the rickshaw’s bell, too.
In every single frame.
I have a soft spot for Calcutta. His artwork hit at its core. Something seemed to be hinting at a greater universe design at play.
“These are beautiful, Sumanta, truly outstanding!” I wrote back to him, way sooner than a publisher’s cultivated image would be at ease with. But with a portfolio like the one he had, it did not matter; not connecting would be my loss, not his.
I went on to thank him for sharing his work with me, and added that while there was no ready manuscript to start work on, I’d love to work with him on some books, soonest. But before that, I would like to speak to him over the phone, right away, if convenient for him.
My words didn’t sound right to me. I-don’t-have-a-story-ready felt rather lame. Write it, if you don’t have one, my mind reasoned.
I quietened that voice in my head. It usually takes me years to write a story. This guy is not going to hang around that long; he’s way too good. Who am I kidding?
This duel was going on inside me somewhere, while I was yet to call him.
I don’t recall what we spoke about during our phone conversation minutes later, though, but by the time we hung up, I had promised to soon share with him a story with lots of Calcutta and a bit of gas burner fire in it. This latter, because one of his samples had his mother standing in their kitchen next to a spectacularly painted fire, cooking. That frame was the most dazzling orchestration of colours, emotions, love, spark, food, and mood.
I must have written that story like a maniac. August 11, 2017, a day after Sumanta’s first email came to me, I wrote back to him with the excitement of a four-year-old. “I have the first raw draft of the story in place!!!” I wrote to him the next morning. “I hope you like it.” And I kept my fingers crossed.
That’s how Machher Jhol began.
It was not an easy book to work on for an artist. It came with its many riders that I’d laid out at the outset: a generous splash of Calcutta on the pages, a tricky balance between the startling and the clichéd about the city, a complete no-no on the boy’s fully-frontal, reader-facing characterisation until the very end, a dog in every frame with the lurking ambivalence of a pet or a street dog companion, and a walking aid that had to be present in every frame, but suitably camouflaged.
I wondered if I was asking for the impossible. Then again, I should have had no reason to doubt. It was Sumanta I had on the other end of my emails and calls. He could do all this, and more. Way more than my scanty understanding of how words and emotions could be brought to life could ever have grasped.
That’s what Sumanta did with the book – pumped that eternal breath and soul into it, and transformed an ordinary story of a boy’s love for his father into a masterpiece. A book that has aliveness, energy, thoroughness, and passion loaded on every page; a book that almost never existed, but for my irrepressible urge to work with this crackling prodigy I had just chanced upon; a book that almost didn’t get published because of my extreme and frequent self-doubt.
At one point, barely a couple of doublespreads away from the book’s completion, I told Sumanta I was feeling nervous about my words, and that we may have to shelve the project forever, to which he replied, “Ma’am, you will have to learn to trust yourself. Just like I trust my work, and I know it is good. Don’t worry about the book.”
That’s what Sumanta was. A silent, solid, self-assured artist who knew he would, some day, spread his wings way beyond the limited confines of illustrating books. A couple of years later – after Machher Jhol had been out for a while to a rousing reception and love from readers all around, I approached him with another story; this time, set in the Sundarbans. He jumped at it.
The initial couple of months is when I saw a repeat of his excitement of creating a new book. Iterations, storyboards, roughs, making the compositions as challenging as he could – it was magic all over again with every fresh email from Sumanta. But suddenly, his interest dropped.
I want to do something else, ma’am. Something different. Something very different from these, I would often end up hearing him say. I did my best to convince him to finish the second book. It was not to be. His heart was set on a larger canvas that he could create on, which he still didn’t quite know yet what it was. But he had moved on in his mind from illustrating picture books; that much was clear.
By the time we found ourselves meeting for the first (and only) time in Bombay to attend an award function, he knew what his next muse was. Sculpture. He had applied for a fellowship and grant with the Scandinavian Folk Arts and Cultural Traditions and was awaiting the announcements. “I will get it, ma’am,’ he said with his typical quiet disarming smile that I so began to enjoy through that evening.
This was in January 2020. Covid19 was barely a month away from spreading through Europe. I suspect that did it. Sumata didn’t get to go. Just about a year later, he has become a yet another Covid-casualty statistic.
For a person with his enormous, irrepressible talent, he was remarkably shy and reticent. Or perhaps this was because he was aware of his talents. Ever since the release of Machher Jhol, I would casually prod him to bolster his online presence. “Now that you have this masterpiece out,” I would tease him, “wait till you find editors and publishers queuing up to sign you for so many books. Get your basic profile up at least! How else will they know where to find you?”
I would only hear a feeble laugh at the other end of the line. By then, I’m sure, he already knew there wouldn’t be another. And as far as his personal artistic validation went, he needed none from the external world. He was secure and self-contained in his brilliance.
Through the course of working on the book, ours developed into a gentle, honest, mutually rewarding give-and-take work relationship. I mentored him through the process of channeling his powerful conceptualisation to gel with a picture book’s storytelling sensibilities; he was raw in that sense. Raw but eager to learn. On his part, he stunned me with his command over his visual narrative depth, every frame teaching me a new way of rethinking the unsaid in a picture book.
I doff my hat to this teacher, inspirer in him.
I am about to call up his home. I have Aunty, Sumanta’s mother’s number with me. I don’t know what I’ll say to her.
I have spoken to her once before. Sumanta was at an illustration workshop with children in Calcutta and his parents had accompanied him. Just before his session went live, he called me with an uncharacteristic exuberance. “Ma’am, I want you to speak to my parents!” And there they were on a video call, right in front of my eyes, proud parents, both.
I don’t know which of the four of us was most overcome with emotions, but I suspect we all were. I congratulated them, in my broken Bangla, for their son’s brilliant achievement, not just in the form of the book, but for everything that he had excelled at thus far. They invited me to their home in Birati, a Calcutta suburb, and I promised to visit them on my next visit. “Bhalo theko” were Aunty’s last words to me before we disconnected.
I visited the city for a couple of days some months later. I didn’t keep my promise. Sumanta had moved to Bangalore for an assignment; meeting his parents didn’t seem necessary.
I don’t know what I’ll tell his parents, now as I am about to call Aunty.
Sumanta was their only child. He turned 29 this March.
Machher Jhol, the picture book, has had an extraordinary life of its own. I haven’t tired of repeating this a million times: the book is what it is because of Sumanta’s artwork. I am yet to come across someone who has not found themselves mesmerised by the splendid frames of Calcutta. The breathtaking details, expanse, beauty and sensitiveness that he breathed into the pages, someone only with an acute understanding of human emotions could. Every frame seems to talk to the reader; every frame fills one with awe.
If 2019 was the year of the pig in China, it definitely was the year of this fish curry book in India. It won almost every single book award where picture books could end up as nominations. Every single one of them. There was that magical day in September when it won two stupendous prestigious ones, on the same day, some six hours and six hundred kilometers apart.
Sumanta was to have been present at each of these, but for one reason or another, he could not make it. Maybe our universe was saving it up for us to meet, just that once, to lift the trophy together on a platform where it had been previously unthinkable for a picture book to have won in the children’s category.
When the winning title was announced, I had to drag a reluctant Sumanta by his arm on to the stage; he thought he would hide himself behind swathes of cheering people! Once in the spotlight, while I jumped and gloated and blabbered, he stood there, untouched by it all.
“You’ll end up as a one-book wonder,” I pulled his leg on our way back to the hotel from the award function. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
Is that even a question, his eyes meant to say.
All he said was, “No, ma’am.” And that same unassuming, self-assured smile. This boy’s unlike anyone I’ve met, I chuckled within; he’ll go far. We had our trophies loosely placed between us, almost forgotten, as both looked out of our respective windows lost in thought. I was thinking of the many books that I wanted to work on, he was probably thinking of sculpting limitless tales in stones.
I had an early morning flight back to Delhi. “I’ll come down to wish you goodbye, ma’am,” he said as we went our different ways in the hotel lobby. “Nothing doing,” I said with a forced firmness, as I was to be leaving for the airport at an unearthly hour, “we say our goodbye right now.”
I found him in the lobby, waiting for me, before I got there the next morning.
Birthing a book together is a long time to get to know a person. This is my requiem to the finest visual poet and finest soul I have had the privilege of working with. His cousin, in a moving tribute she posted on social media, writes of her most abiding memories of him: “…how you would stand still and observe, how you blew my mind with your knowledge of light and colour, how passionate you were about animals in the wild, and how you would always get out of a crowd and find yourself doing what you loved the most, making art.”
Sumanta, you observed, and created magic. Your one book has touched, and continues to move, thousands of hearts across the country. That’s enough of a legacy to leave behind in one lifetime.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.
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